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The new #2 hitter

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The #3 spot in the batting order used to be reserved for the team's "best" hitter. Is a change in that thinking occurring?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It's still only around ten or so games into the 2015 season, but already some very interesting trends are beginning to develop. The Tigers and Royals are off to very strong starts, and the Mets are performing like many have predicted they would when they finally got healthy, especially their young pitching. The Cubs brought up Kris Bryant, who struck out three times in his first game and walked three times in his second with two hits, making every comparison to Babe Ruth unfair to Bryant, since he'll be better.

There are also micro trends that don't present themselves without a little digging. Joe Maddon has famously batted the pitcher eighth in every game so far this year and shows no signs of changing. However, another shift has occurred in batting order deployment. Consider these players:

Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 55 12 3 6 6 9 .255 .345 .489 .835
Mike Moustakas Royals 52 14 2 2 4 5 .333 .440 .524 .964
Joey Votto Reds 50 14 4 10 10 7 .350 .480 .750 1.230
Ian Kinsler Tigers 50 13 0 8 4 8 .289 .340 .378 .718
Mike Trout Angels 46 16 3 9 5 9 .400 .457 .675 1.132
Steven Souza Rays 45 10 2 7 6 17 .256 .356 .436 .791
Jason Heyward Cardinals 45 10 1 3 1 8 .227 .244 .386 .631
Joe Panik Giants 44 11 0 2 4 8 .282 .341 .359 .700
Christian Yelich Marlins 44 9 0 4 4 10 .225 .295 .250 .545
Melky Cabrera White Sox 42 10 0 2 0 5 .238 .238 .262 .500

So far this year, they're the players with the most plate appearances when slotted in the #2 position in the batting order. There's a wide variety of players represented here, but a change in use is occurring for some of them. For example, Dustin Pedroia has been the prototypical #2 hitter in the game for some time, a player capable of getting on base and hitting with power. Ian Kinsler and Melky Cabrera fit that mold as well, but then some differences begin to appear. Jason Heyward has primarily batted second since he came into the major leagues but has been used often at leadoff and third as well. Mike Trout has a similar pattern, primarily #2 but also with a significant number of appearances as the leadoff hitter.

Joey Votto is not the typical #2 hitter, but his move to #2 this year shows a departure from the orthodoxy of the past of using the "best" hitter at #3, defined as the optimum combination of power and average. Mike Moustakas is the real confounder of this list, having hit in the #2 spot 53 times in his career--52 of which occurred this year. An inability to hit for average found him at the bottom of the lineup prior to this year, but apparently Ned Yost had an epiphany and bumped him up. It seems to be working so far, as he's hitting for average and getting on base.

So why now? I suspect there are two reasons, one fairly well-known, the other not so much. The obvious one is that #2 hitters have more plate appearances than #3 hitters. I believe I first saw this discussed in a Sports Illustrated article around 15-20 years ago, and this table shows 2014 plate appearances by batting order position:

Slot PA Avg
Batting 1st 22,511 750
Batting 2nd 21,955 731
Batting 3rd 21,489 716
Batting 4th 20,999 699
Batting 5th 20,529 684
Batting 6th 19,952 665
Batting 7th 19,414 647
Batting 8th 18,840 628
Batting 9th 18,240 608

Each drop in the batting order position decreases plate appearances by around 15-20 a year, so if the "best" hitter is moved up from #3 to #2, that's 15-20 more times they have an opportunity to make a difference.

However, this doesn't explain why power hitters are starting to sneak into #2 versus the #3 spot. What is beginning to emerge is that batting order itself is relatively unimportant after the first inning, since there's no guarantee the hitters will bat in their given roles. The first inning is guaranteed, of course, and after that--who knows? With chance that large a factor, it makes sense to place better hitters in the slot in which they'll get more at-bats.

This is a major simplification, and I'm not suggesting that thought devoted to batting order development is wasted time. But the trends are moving toward more plate appearances for better hitters, and if this represents fewer opportunities with multiple runners in the first inning as opposed to more at-bats in general, the greater number of at-bats seems to be winning out. I have no idea how many extra runs moving a player up to #2 from #3 can generate, but if it means the difference between a game-winning hit in the last at-bat versus standing in the on-deck circle waiting to hit, it will be worth it.

Data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

Scott Lindholm is a contributor to BP Wrigleyville and lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.